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April 05, 2005

The Africanity of Black Greeks

One of the first questions out of my mouth when I attacked the Alpha brothers on the stage was why they didn't use African symbols of pyramids and ankhs and sphinxes et al instead of Greek letters and symbology they used. If you could have harnessed the energy with which they rolled their eyes, you could light up a small city. They had two answers. The first was unsatisfactory, the second made me think.

The first answer was that if I had done any freaking research, I would have known that the pledges were called 'Sphinxmen' and that there were plenty of Egyptian symbols in Alpha Phi Alpha. The second was that Alpha brotherhood was not about promoting symbols and wearing colors, but it was about the relationships formed between brothers. You could call us Men from Mars or whatever you like, but this is about lifelong friendship. Next question.

I had learned that a good friend of mine was an Alpha, and I didn't know that. When he told me that it pledging was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life, I had to do it. After all, he was a Computer Science and EE double major. I ended up pledging Alpha Phi Alpha, but not that semester. Besides, they said they weren't likely to take anyone who hadn't been in school at least three semesters because they didn't want any dropouts on line. And I discovered a lot of things the easy way and the hard way about manhood, friendship, trust, pain and nobility. It turned out to be a very different experience than I expected, filled with disappointment, surprise, and a great number of other emotions.

After I had gone through the public shame of pledging Alpha, I found myself on the stage answering the same questions. I tried not to roll my eyes so hard though. It truly was about brotherhood, and I understood that from the perspective of an insider.

So I would say that one of the great misconceptions about black frats is that they exist to be community service organizations. There is nothing about the experience that makes anyone more public spirited or community minded. You just do some community work as part and parcel of the pledge program. If you're a community minded person when you come in, you have the opportunity to leverage your ambition within the context of an established organization. There's no conversion going on.

But I think the thing that most folks understand the least is the extent to which individuals and groups of brothers are unable to change the organization to which they belong. Alpha, after all, represents a 100 year old tradition. And as loudly as one brother can say that he's in the same organization as was Martin Luther King Jr, it doesn't make him MLK (or Thurgood Marshall, or Marion Berry for that matter). That's a lot of baggage to drag around. And of course every brother pledges for different reasons, every chapter has a different reputation and every pledge program emphasizes different elements of brotherhood. It means a lot of different things to many people at once, and you really can't get booted out of the fraternity once you are a member.

I appreciate that there are folks who would like that Alpha and other black frats took a leadership role in black communities, but I don't believe that it will happen or that the organization is structurally capable of doing so. That said, I know from personal experience that there are a lot of brothers who are right on target with that mission. Now that I know that I will be in Los Angeles and not Beijing for the mid-term, I am re-establishing my roots and Alpha is going to be a part of that.

Alphas and other black frats and sororities are an excellent example of a small but important minority of middle class African Americans who demonstrate a commitment to each other. There's a lot of love and pride in that which cannot be denied. More power to them, but don't expect them to change their colors.

Posted by mbowen at April 5, 2005 03:39 PM

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